"There’s more to it than just dropping off a meal," Gerry Lynch told me, as we began our Meals on Wheels 23 stop, four-and-a-half hour delivery trip through Newport, Lempster, Washington and Goshen last Wednesday.
I had a many months long standing invitation to ride along on a Meals on Wheels route and last week, anticipating the 40th anniversary celebration of the Sullivan County Nutrition Services at the Newport Senior Center on Saturday, I took the time to learn, first-hand about the program.
Sullivan County Nutrition Services began providing food for seniors 40 years ago. And when Meals on Wheels came along, there were about 25 meals delivered each day in Newport. Today, 125,000 meals per year are delivered from preparation sites in Claremont and Charlestown as well as the Newport Senior Center. There are four routes each out of Claremont and Newport and one out of Charlestown.
Gerry Lynch had a career in the tool and die industry. In retirement, he is back to work delivering meals on a 70 plus mile route five days a week. His enthusiasm shows whether it is greeting folks receiving meals or telling me about the program. He is a natural for his job.
Before we hit the road, Gerry packed up the meals in coolers and put them in the back of his pick-up. I watched as hot food was put into trays and quickly covered with machine-applied clear plastic covers. The work was done by a couple of staff members and a volunteer. The temperature of the meals is measured before we leave and Gerry tells me it will be checked again on a meal when we return.
On Wednesday, the menu was baked chicken, mixed vegetables, half of a sweet potato and a dessert. Desserts were divided up depending on whether they were appropriate for diabetics or not.
We were off about 9 am. Gerry rarely had to knock on a door. The person receiving the meal inevitably was at the door waiting for us. That is good because the rules call for Gerry to see the person and talk with them to determine "how they are doing," an assessment to determine the health and well being of the recipient.
I want to emphasize how eager people were to see us. There were smiles, quick banter and many thanks and "see you tomorrows" at nearly every stop.
All but one of the people we dropped off a meal to were seniors. The exception was a man who lived alone and was recovering from surgery. He will only be receiving Meals on Wheels services for a short time. Others we saw were struggling with health issues that appeared to me to be normal challenges that many of us face as we age.
At one home, a man in his 90s explained that he and his wife would save the meal up and have it later in the day. His wife said she just couldn’t cook anymore. They beamed as Gerry introduced me and explained why I was riding with him.
Eligibility for seniors for Meals on Wheels services is not based on income. To receive the federal funds to support Meals on Wheels, agencies like Sullivan County Nutrition Services have to raise matching funds. That comes from contributions from municipalities, and I want to state clearly, from the contributions of many of the recipients. That is an important part of the story. When they can, many seniors pay for what they receive.
That is the case of a woman I know quite well. I was surprised that she was a recipient. Although she is in a wheel chair and uses oxygen, she gets out regularly to community events where I see her. She explained to me how important the hot meal was to her each day. She knew it was hot, healthy and was well prepared. She makes contributions to pay for her meals and their delivery.
It was touching and encouraging to see spouses providing essential, hands-on care to their partners. There was a couple in a pretty rough housing situation. The husband said, "we don’t have much, but we’re damn proud of what we do have." In other cases, children have taken a parent into their own home and provide care for them. By bringing a meal for the parent and a well-being check-in, Gerry complements what the children are doing.
Think about the practical aspect of Meals on Wheels. At a cost of a few dollars a day per person, a couple of hundred seniors in Sullivan County receive a hot meal and with it a chance to be monitored. This service is a part of the community and family foundation that allows these seniors to stay in their own homes, paying taxes, keeping up their property, and being part of their neighborhood.
The alternative for many of those Gerry and I visited would be to go into nursing homes. And when their resources are exhausted, they would have to go on Medicaid costing the county, state and federal government a couple of hundred dollars per day per person. Delivering food and checking on seniors through Meals on Wheels seems a financially more prudent approach. And it is so much more neighborly.
Gerry was right. It is much more than a meal.